The Levanter

Title:                      The Levanter

Author:                 Eric Ambler

Ambler, Eric (1972, 2012). The Levanter. New York, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

LCCN:    2012418652

PZ3.A48 Le3 2012


Date Posted:      April 29, 2015


Ever since Coffin for Dimitrios[1] through his Topkapi-d continuity (a good and admirable quarter of a century) Eric Ambler has written devious and diverting entertainments such as this one which is based in the Middle East where you’re never quite sure what is going on or about to go off—grenades in grapefruit or bombs in flight bags. Michael Howell, in spite of his Anglicized name, is a “levantine mongrel” carrying on his family business and now trying to convert his “blocked assets” into something more profitable such as ceramics or dry batteries. Until he is unwillingly involved with Salah Ghaled, key activist with the Palestine Liberation Organization who is interested in detonators for use against the Israelis and who is able to enlist his cooperation. . . up to a point. The story is told through alternating, questioning (an American journalist) and sympathetic (his mistress’) eyes and it’s a sinuous, chancy and altogether nervy affair. You’ll probably find Ambler’s Levanter the most attractive antihero who’s been around in some time.

[1] Ambler, Eric (1939, 1996). A Coffin for Dimitrios. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers

The Life of Ian Fleming

Title:                      The Life of Ian Fleming

Author:                 John Pearson

Pearson, John (1966). The Life of Ian Fleming. New York, McGraw-Hill

LCCN:    66028297

PR6056.L4 Z82 1966b

Date Updated:  October 9, 2015


The creator of James Bond cut an extraordinarily dashing figure for most of his adult life, until he was bagged in marriage at forty-four and mended some of his more ruthless ways with women. With the added figure of .007 stalking these pages, or sitting a little to the rear of Fleming, this becomes a completely absorbing biography and one that works up a great deal of admiration and affection for Fleming in the reader. Pearson quotes Fleming as regarding his novels as disguised installments in his autobiography and Pearson spends much time naming and identifying the real people and places. There is very little critical analysis, happily, a job already vaguely well done by Kingsley Amis in The James Bond Dossier[1]. Perhaps the wildest note in the book is struck when Pearson suggests that Bond’s superior, M, is possibly a stand-in for Fleming’s mother.

Long before his late fame Fleming not only mixed with very posh society, but was the intimate of celebrities such as Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Cyril Connolly, et al, all of whom contribute some waspishly good dialogue to these pages. His personal adventures were drawn mainly from work as a globetrotting reporter and as the personal assistant to the Chief of Naval Intelligence in London during WWII. Fleming’s last years were indeed pathetic, for his health was terribly crippled at the very moment the Bond series struck gold. Bond finally became Fleming’s Frankenstein and, Pearson states, killed him.

Some more about Fleming from Roy Berkeley[2]

In an odd building at 22A Ebury Street, London, described by Ian Fleming’s biographer John Pearson as ‘a setting rather than a home’, the young Fleming spent his first years in London.

The place wasn’t a home at all for most of its existence, having started out as a Baptist chapel (in 1830), then becoming successively a school for boys, a nightclub, and a furniture store before being turned into flats during WWII. But it was said to be haunted and the fun-loving Fleming found it irresistible. He redid the central portion with the help of ‘a lady interior decorator from Berlin.’ His bathroom was in an alcove that once held the altar. His bedroom and dining area were in the gallery. Workmen painted the windowless chapel grey, installed indirect lighting, and filled the skylight with dark-blue glass. Into the centre of this room Fleming moved a large black sofa, and in this gloomy space he kept a fire burning year-round. ‘It must have been a lonely and oppressive house,’ notes Pearson[3]. But .here Fleming pursued the obsessions so clearly manifest in his novels: womanizing, gourmandizing, and gambling. He didn’t pursue them long here. When the Blitz damaged the adjacent building (No. 20), Fleming moved to the Dorchester Hotel; it was relatively bombproof and very social besides.

Fleming was then a junior partner in a stock-brokerage firm but said he didn’t like finance, didn’t understand it, and wasn’t good at it. The idea of wealth fascinated him (many of his villains have immense wealth) and one detects a hostility mixed with envy, in Fleming/Bond, for such persons. But he had neither the skill nor the desire to acquire great wealth himself—that is, to earn money with money—and when his books brought him undreamt-of riches he was probably as surprised as anyone.

A previous occupant here had been Sir Oswald Mosley of the BUF (see Site 8). And after Fleming left, still early in the war, the building became something of an annexe to the Ebury Court Hotel (see Site 18); Yvonne Rudellat and several other women who worked there sIept here. I don’t know whether they changed the decor.

Further comments by Roy Berkeley:[4]

In Chelsea, along the Thames is Chelsea Walk. The grand Victorian building just past Cheyne Row is Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk. Newly married, Ian Fleming moved into a river-view flat on the third floor (above T. S. Eliot) in 1952.

Newly married, Ian Fleming moved into a river-view flat on the third floor (above T. S. Eliot) in 1952. Fleming had known his wife for a dozen years, through many of his other love affairs. She was Lady Rothermere when she had a child by Fleming; the baby died at birth. She was pregnant again by Fleming when Lord Rothermere divorced her. This child, Caspar Fleming, also died young—of a drug overdose in his teens.

Fleming joked that he began writing novels to take his mind off e shock of marrying at the age of 44. To call the Bond books a diversion is, I think, a classic piece of disinformation, part of the Old Etonian image that Fleming affected of immediate and effortless success at anything he touched. John Pearson observes in The Life of Ian Fleming that Fleming carefully built a network of literary people who would support his novelistic efforts when he was ready. Undoubtedly, too, the soon-to-be Anne Fleming exerted formidable pressure on the man she was marrying, to the end that he should make his mark in the field of letters and not the field of finance. (Fleming had been in journalism but primarily in the business end of it.)

In January, 1952, he and Anne were at his Jamaican retreat, her divorce imminent. Full of foreboding about the marriage, Fleming began writing Casino Royale[5]. He finished a draft in seven weeks. In his bedroom here at Carlyle Mansions he revised the manuscript, with characteristic panache using a gold-plated typewriter ordered from America. The book went into its first printing, a cautious 7,000 copies, in April, 1953. By then Fleming had returned to Jamaica for his annual retreat and had finished Live and Let Die[6]—in 12 fewer days than the first book. The characters were established by then. “M”was modelled after Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming’s wartime boss. Pearson reveals that Fleming often called his mother “M;” and that she gave young Ian the same “grudging praise” and “terrifying blame” dished out to Bond by the fictional “M.” Miss Moneypenny was based on Miss Pettigrew, secretary to Menzies. And Bond owes his name to the author of a bird book on Fleming’s breakfast table in Jamaica. Fleming had wanted a superlatively colourless name for 007 and happily appropriated this one. “The name later became so associated with adventure and excitement,” Henry A. Zieger writes in his biography of Fleming, that the ornithologist’s wife wrote to Fleming, “thanking him for using it.”

The fictional Bond is not the real Fleming, despite Fleming’s statement that with Goldfinger [7]he was writing “the next volume of my autobiography.” To John Pearson, the Bond character is “Fleming’s dream of a self that might have been—a tougher, stronger, more effective, duller, far less admirable character than the real Fleming.” Today Fleming might be described as an intelligence “wannabe.” He carried a commando knife and a teargas pen during WWII while working safely behind a desk in London, and he subsequently encouraged people to think he”d been involved wartime matters of great danger and drama. The plot of Casino, Royale, for example, came from a gambling experience that Fleming said he”d had himself—Fleming pitted against a group of Nazis. The real evening was nothing of the sort; the “Nazis” were Portuguese, the stakes were low, and Fleming played on in the almost-empty casino until he was completely cleaned out.

[1] Amis, Kingsley (1965). The James Bond Dossier. New York: New American Library. [LCCN: 65015687]

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, Pp. 40-41

[3] Pearson, John (1966). The Life of Ian Fleming. New York, McGraw-Hill

[4] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 71-74

[5] Fleming, Ian (1954). Casino Royale. New York, Macmillan

[6] Fleming, Ian (1954). Live and Let Die. London: J. Cape

[7] Fleming, Ian (1981). Goldfinger. Geneva: Edito-Service


Operation Heartbreak

Title:                      Operation Heartbreak

Author:                 Alfred Duff Cooper, Viscount Norwich

Cooper, Duff (1950). Operation Heartbreak. London, Hart-Davis

LCCN:    51016763

PZ3.C78394 Op

Date Posted:      April 27, 2015


A skirmish with sentiment which records with few words and with infinite irony the story of Willie Maryngton, who accomplished only in death the two things he had persistently pursued—and consistently failed to attain—during his lifetime. Inheriting a military code which had faded fifty years ago, Willie was a few weeks too young for the first war, a little too old for active service in his regiment with the second war. Living entirely within his club and his regiment, he acquitted himself with credit but without distinction, was thrown over by his first girl, and then fell in love with Felicity, erratic in her affections, sometimes wanton, sometimes distant. And as the years of gentle rebuff break his spirit, he dies of pneumonia, and it is his body which is used for a military strategy of great importance—bearing with it the letter of identification from Felicity with the latterday acknowledgement of her love… A profile in modest failure which is disciplined in its artistry and quite touching.

[1] Kirkus Review (February 23, 1951) downloaded April 27, 2015

Historical Dictionary of Ian Fleming’s World of Intelligence

Title:                      Historical Dictionary of Ian Fleming’s World of Intelligence

Author:                 Nigel West

West, Nigel (2009). Historical Dictionary of Ian Fleming’s World of Intelligence: Fact and Fiction. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press

LCCN:    2009011491

PR6056.L4 Z89 2009


Date Updated:  April 23, 2015

In 2013 I did a tour in Britain of Ian Fleming key locations, including one of the houses in which he lived and one of the pubs in which he did a lot of writing. The tour was led by Nigel West, and he has always seemed on point and tenacious for accuracy in his writing. I have listed many of his books in my Intelligence Blog.

The Historical Dictionary of Ian Fleming’s World of Intelligence includes hundreds of dictionary entries on actual cases of espionage, real-life spies, MI5, SIS, CIA, and KGB, as well as on the short stories and novels that define one of the most extraordinary fictional characters of all time.

Twelve novels and nine short stories define one of the most extraordinary fictional characters of all time, creating the basis for the most successful movie series in cinematographic history, watched by more than half the world’s population. The single person probably more responsible than any other for glamorizing the murky world of espionage is Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, who himself lived a remarkable double life of spy and writer. Everyone has an opinion on why 007 became so successful, but one possible explanation is the ingenious formula of fact, fiction, and sheer fantasy. Certainly the author drew on friends and places he knew well to provide the backdrop for his drama, but what proportion of his output is authentic, and what comes directly from the author’s imagination?

These questions and more are examined in the Historical Dictionary of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. This is done through a chronology, an introduction, a bibliography, and hundreds of cross-referenced dictionary entries on actual cases of espionage, real-life spies, MI5, SIS, CIA, KGB, and others. It also contains entries on Ian Fleming’s novels and short stories, family and friends, his employers and colleagues, and other notable characters.

Nigel West is currently the European Editor of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence and teaches the history of postwar intelligence at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies in Alexandria, VA. He is the author of many books, including the Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence, Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence, and Historical Dictionary of Sexspionage. In October 2003 he was awarded the U.S. Association of Former Intelligence Officers’ first Lifetime Literature Achievement Award.

Nigel West examines the fascinating double life of spy and writer Ian Fleming, who will forever be known for creating James Bond, one of the most intriguing fictional spies in modern history—as well as the most lucrative; the Bond movies have been seen by more than half of the world’s population. The volume consists of a chronology, an introduction, a bibliography, and hundreds of cross-referenced entries on actual cases of espionage and real-life spies, along with entries on Fleming’s novels, his family and friends, his employers and colleagues, and other notable characters from his work.

A few readers note that there are mistakes in the book, notably the year of death of Hugh Gaitskell (actually January 18, 1963).

Words from Roy Berkeley about Ian Fleming[1]

In London, near Buckingham Palace and Lower Grosvenor Place is Victoria Square. Just before the tiny paved square is Victoria Square. From 1953 until 1964, when he died at age 56, Ian Fleming lived here with his wife Anne and their young son Caspar. The first of the Bond books, Casino Royale[2], was published a month after the move here from Carlyle Mansions. The last of Fleming’s Bond books, The Man with the Golden Gun, was published after his death. More than 20 million of his books sold during this time.

But, throughout these years, Fleming was often depressed, chasing an elusive happiness. Anne was witty and charmingly outrageous but essentially unsupportive (‘those dreadful Bond books,’ she called them). In this house she gave frequent dinner parties for people with possibly more literary pretensions, and certainly more literary achievements, than Fleming. He often spent those evenings hiding out at his club. ‘The marriage survived one of its rockier moments,’ Henry A. Zieger tells us in Ian Fleming: The Spy Who Came in with the Gold, ‘when Fleming came home one night to find Cyril Connolly reading page proofs of the first Bond book aloud to the assembled multitude with heavily theatrical emphasis which the guests evidently found amusing.’ Fleming’s friend Malcolm Muggeridge would occasionally be included in Anne’s gatherings and, finding them as distasteful as Fleming did, would retreat with him to what Muggeridge calls ‘a sort of private apartment at the top of the house’ where Fleming kept his ‘masculine bric-a-brac.’ Here the two would exchange Fleet Street gossip and sip highballs, writes Muggeridge, ‘like climbers taking a breather above a mountain torrent whose roar could still faintly be heard in the ravine below.’

Fleming’s was a flawed personality. Reviewers have noted the strong connection, in his books, between sex and cruelty. His attitude may have been formed at Eton; the British public school atmosphere is said to consist equally of sadism, snobbery and sodomy. For all that, Fleming seems to have grown up enthusiastically heterosexual—not always the case among fellow alumni. (He attended Sandhurst too, graduating from neither institution, although encouraging people to believe otherwise.)

Very ambitious, he was fortunately very skilled at self-promotion. He made a special effort to get into President Kennedy’s good graces and the Bond books only sold well in America after Kennedy included one in a list of books he had enjoyed. Kennedy would obviously have relished these books. Like his father he was a great admirer of arrogant phallicism. Unlike his father he was a great Anglophile.

Fleming was an extraordinary story-teller, his talent more than compensating for his ignorance on many subjects. Whenever he discussed a subject I knew anything about, he was either partially or totally wrong. Like most British writers he was abysmally ignorant about firearms (undoubtedly a consequence of Britain’s restrictive laws on firearms). He was also wildly ignorant about American speech. And I’ve been told by people close to British intelligence operations that he was no more accurate in that area. One can only admire the self-confidence that enabled Fleming to write so blithely those compellingly well-written stories that are no less compelling for being chock-full of howlers. My favourite of his short stories is ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (which has nothing to do with the film of the same name), probably because it is set in Vermont and because Bond uses a Savage 99, for years my primary deer-hunting rifle. Fleming acquired his knowledge of Vermont by visiting the Vermont home pf his friend Ivar Bryce a few miles from my own home. But Fleming knew nothing about Vermont in the late autumn, just before deer season, and seems never to have fired ( or even loaded) a Savage 99.

Fleming was driven by complicated love-hate feelings towards America. Undeniably, he felt uneasy about America’s wealth and power. In From Russia with Love[3], he has the Russians say that America’s bloated intelligence effort is ineffectual while Britain’s low-profile service is as successful as it is small—surely a distorted picture of both services. (In 1992 a former head of KGB intelligence listed the top Western intelligence services and didn’t even mention MI6. Customary disinformation? Or rare candour?)

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 37-39

[2] Fleming, Ian (1954). Casino Royale. New York, Macmillan

[3] Fleming, Ian (1957, 1981). From Russia with Love. Geneva : Edito-Service

A Spy’s Lonely Path

Title:                      A Spy’s Lonely Path

Author:                 Gene Coyle

Coyle, Gene (2014). A Spy’s Lonely Path. Self Published: AuthorHouse

OCLC:    871318270

Date Posted:      April 22, 2015

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Gene Coyle spent 14 of his 30 years with the CIA abroad working undercover. Now a professor at Indi-ana University Bloomington, he has combined experiences from his former profession to answer a long latent “literary itch!” A Spy’s Lonely Path is his fourth and most recent espionage novel.[2]

Coyle’s protagonist, Robert Hall, is a young CIA operations officer who meets Alexander Golovin, a Russian diplomat, at an arms negotiation conference in Vienna. When Hall learns Golovin is also a professor at Moscow University who has developed a sophisticated risk assessment algorithm relied on by the Russian president, Golovin becomes a potentially valuable target for recruitment. When Golovin learns Hall is CIA, the recruitment takes a surprising turn. But Hall is not the only one interested in Golovin; the Russian security service (the FSB) is monitoring him closely because of his contacts with the president and thus becomes aware of his contacts with Hall. The recruitment is complicated by Golovin’s relationship with his graduate assistant, Elizaveta Petrvicha, as his marriage fails.

Coyle lets the reader follow the recruitment by including Hall’s cables to headquarters and the responses that both encourage his efforts and reveal attempts by a headquarters superior to take undeserved credit. The operation end in a series of events engineered in part by the FSB without realizing they have endorsed the inaccurate results produced by the risk assessment algorithm, which embarrasses the president on the world stage. A Spy’s Lonely Path is both entertaining and informative-a pleasure to read.

[1] Hayden B. Peake in the Intelligencer (21, 1, Winter 2014-15, p. 136). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at http://www.cia,gov.

[2] Gene Coyle’s previous novels are The Dream Merchant of Lisbon: The Game of Espionage (Xlibris, 2004); No Game For Amateurs: The Search for a Japanese Mole on the Eve of WWII (AuthorHouse, 2009), and Diamonds And Deceit: The Search for the Missing Romanov Dynasty Jewels (AuthorHouse 2011).

The Red Cell

Title:                      The Red Cell

Author:                 Andre Le Gallo

Le Gallo, Andre (2014). The Red Cell. Mountain Lake Press

OCLC:    882550857

  • This book is primarily an e book, Mountain Lake Press as an eBook from http:j/mauntainlakepress. cam
  • Place of publication unknown

Date Posted:      April 21, 2015

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Andre Le Gallo’s latest novel, The Red Cell, is distinguished first by a foreword written by a CIA colleague and former deputy director of operations, Thomas Twetten, who explains Andre’s unusual credentials as a CIA case officer. Second, one of the characters in the book battles ALS, a disease Le Gallo himself knows firsthand. And third, it is an exciting story well told.

Following a thematic thread established in his two previous novels, The Caliphate and Satan’s Spy, protagonists Steve Church and his fiancée, Kella Hastings, struggle to foil Iranian Islamic terrorists. Their leader seeks revenge against Church personally, the result of previous encounters, and the United States in general, especially its economy. The story begins in Washington, DC, but soon expands to Europe and to San Francisco. Along the way, Le Gallo provides realistic descriptions of terrorists, agents, and moles seeking to accomplish their missions while pursued by a team assembled by Church and Hastings.

National Clandestine Service officers are well known for their storytelling gifts, but few are able to write espionage stories that are realistic, clever, and entertaining. Le Gallo is one of those few and has done it again with The Red Cell. It is enjoyable reading but only available in digital form from Amazon Kindle or from Mountain Lake Press at

[1] Hayden B. Peake in the Intelligencer (21, 1, Winter 2014-15, p. 136). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at http://www.cia,gov.


Title:                      Legacy

Author:                Alan Judd

Judd, Alan (2001). Legacy. New York: Knopf

LCCN:    2002016262

PR6060.U32 L34 2003


Date Updated:  January 24, 2013

A still-serving MI6 officer [when the book was written] describes an authentic double agent case in fictional terms. Nigel West rates this as one of the Best Spy Novels written.

Rumor has it that Alan Judd served for more than 20 years in British foreign intelligence, ending up as the personal secretary of ‘C’, the head of M16. In other words, he knows the details of espionage, both British and foreign, as well as the secrets of the Western intelligence community in general, better than anyone else in the UK. He has the profound knowledge and deep understanding of the craft of intelligence to write books about spying, a background that cannot be matched by any other British or, for that matter, American writer on the subject. Every page of his Legacy testifies to the competence of its author, who has skillfully used his awareness of particular cases connected with the operations against the KGB and the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) from the end of the 1960s up to the end of the 1980s.

We are in John le Carrè territory in this Cold War spy story set in 1970s London. Charles Thoroughgood, whose name describes his character, has left the British army and joined the Secret Service as a trainee. By coincidence, a Russian acquaintance from university days shows up as a Soviet diplomat with a weakness for a particular London prostitute. Charles is taken out of his training course and told to approach his former classmate. When he does so, the Russian turns the tables on him by revealing that Charles’s own father, now deceased, was a long-standing Soviet agent.

The author clearly knows what he’s talking about, and includes valid descriptions of interesting. We also meet some quirky British characters in the best tradition of the cast of eccentrics created by le Carrè.

Judd differs from le Carrè in that he sees no more equivalence between the British and the Soviets. Whereas Le Carrè regards his characters as players in a game in which both sides observe the same rules more or less. Judd has no such scruples. He clearly sees the Brits as morally superior and the Soviets as utterly evil.

There are some surprises in this book which are not altogether surprising and the depiction of England circa 1970 seems more like the 1950s. Judd clearly brings out the upper class nature of the secret service, still the realm of public school boys and a few women from the “right” families and universities. His women are not convincing and the subject of sexual desire is handled as if it were an embarrassing social faux pas.

The Day of the Jackal

Title:                      The Day of the Jackal

Author:                  Frederick Forsyth

Forsyth, Frederick (1971). The Day of the Jackal. New York: Viking Press

LCCN:    75030456



Date Updated:  January 20, 2017

This book is from a list I obtained from Nigel West. Nigel West is an author specializing in security, intelligence, secret service and espionage issues. He is the European Editor of the World Intelligence Review, published in Washington DC, and the editorial director of The St Ermin’s Press. In 1989 he was voted “The Experts’ Expert” by The Observer. He writes regularly for SpearsWealth Management Survey and works with The Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies. He judges this book as one of the best spy novels

Nigel describes the book: An assassin hired to kill President Charles de Gaulle is chased across Europe, constantly switching is identity to elude his hunters.

The Jackal is the code name of a hired killer whose anonymity will be all that’s left to him in an unmarked grave at Pete Lachaise. Before he gets there–and it’s a helluva before–he’s been promised a half a million dollars by the OAS to bring off the assassination of De Gaulle. It would seem that he couldn’t miss with the special rifle he has made for him down to the last crossed hair–or with three sets of false papers (Danish, American and French) and three sets of contact lenses to conceal his normally expressionless eyes. This then is a tracer to get him before he gets to De Gaulle and it’s quite exciting. The Jackal is a nerveless type who kills all along the route. The book is written as a paraprocedural documentary that you can read at 140 kilometers per hour. It has been highly successful, has been republished, and made into two movies.

Reviewed by Charles Cumming[1]

In 1969, a young British journalist returned to London after spending 18 months reporting on the Biafran war. His name was Frederick Forsyth. He was 31 years old and, by his own account, flat broke. Needing money quickly, he did what any self-respecting hack would have done: he wrote a thriller.

Initially entitled The Jackal, it told the story of an unnamed assassin hired to kill President de Gaulle. The novel took Forsyth just 35 days to write. He had no great literary aspirations and certainly no intention of revolutionizing an entire genre. Forsyth’s heroes were John Buchan and Rider Haggard: he simply wanted to tell a riveting story.

This month [June 2011] marks the 40th anniversary of the novel’s publication. It is no exaggeration to say The Day of the Jackal has influenced a generation of thriller writers, from Jack Higgins to Ken Follett, from Tom Clancy to Andy McNab. Before, thrillers were self-evidently works of the imagination. Forsyth changed all that; never before had a popular novelist created a world that seemed indistinguishable from real life. His debut had a documentary sense of realism that all but convinced the public they were reading a work of non-fiction. “Sweeping the country,” exclaims the flyleaf of my dog-eared copy from 1971–“the novel that may not be one!”

How Forsyth managed to achieve all this is a story worth telling. In his mid-20s, he had been posted as a journalist to Paris. De Gaulle had granted Algeria its independence, incurring the wrath of the ultra-right: militants in the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) had vowed to assassinate him. “We were all waiting for the mega-story,” Forsyth recalled in a recent interview, “the moment when a sniper got him through the forehead.” Of course, the sniper never did, but it gave Forsyth an idea. What if the OAS hired a professional hitman, who was able to penetrate the rings of security around De Gaulle? Forsyth had befriended several of the president’s bodyguards; he had even reported from the scene of a failed assassination attempt–an account of this real-life incident opens the novel.

Forsyth had something else in his favor. In Biafra, he’d met many mercenaries, who had taught him about the European underworld: how to obtain a false passport; where to buy a custom-made rifle; how to break a man’s neck. All of this knowledge was poured in. Yet the novel was still a risk, not least because the ending was already known–De Gaulle had died in his bed in 1970.

The first four publishers Forsyth sent the manuscript turned it down. A thriller set in France with an unnamed anti-hero who fails in his mission? Forget it. Eventually, one man took a chance. Harold Harris, of Hutchinson, agreed to a modest initial print run of 8,000 copies. “It might just work,” he said. Well, it worked. The Day of the Jackal became a word-of-mouth sensation. Within two years, Fred Zinnemann had made a superb film adaptation, with Edward Fox as the Jackal. Hutchinson has lost count of how many millions of copies the book has sold.

“It is a perfect example of the adventure story,” says Robert Harris, whose own impeccably researched political thrillers belong in the same tradition. “It is very well written, entirely believable, with this intriguing, enigmatic character at its centre.”

The Jackal is the obverse of that other great English assassin–James Bond. Alas, he has also influenced some of society’s less attractive elements. A Hebrew translation was found in possession of Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, while Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was nicknamed Carlos the Jackal after a copy of the novel was discovered at his flat. That The Day of the Jackal has become a handbook for maniacs should not be the book’s lasting legacy. Few writers can claim to have changed the literary landscape. Forty years ago, a penniless British journalist, unwittingly or not, did just that.

[1] Charles Cumming, “The Day of the Jackal–the hit we nearly missed” in The Guardian (Friday 3 June 2011), downloaded November 11, 2016


A Coffin for Dimitrios

Title:                      A Coffin for Dimitrios

Author:                Eric Ambler

Ambler, Eric (1939, 1996). A Coffin for Dimitrios. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers

LCCN:    96035453

PR6001.M48 C64 1996


Date Updated:  April 16, 2015

An English writer tries to trace the trail of a Greek spy found dead in Istanbul. Ambler[1], who began his writing career in advertising, is credited with not only modernizing the spy novel but also realistically writing about the bleak and definitely nonglamorous world of twentieth-century espionage.

For those not familiar with his work, Ambler was to the modern British spy novel what Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were to the American detective novel. Ambler transformed the spy novel from a simplistic black and white world of perfect good guys versus nefarious bad guys into a far more realistic world where sometimes the difference between good and evil is not all that great.

Typically, Ambler would take an unassuming, unsuspecting spectator and immerse him in a world of mystery and intrigue in pre-WW II Europe. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of le Carrè, Deighton, and, most recently, Alan Furst. A Coffin for Dimitrios is one of Ambler’s best known works. (It was made into a movie starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.)

The plot is relatively easy to follow. Charles Lattimer is a British University professor who retired from academia once he discovered that writing mass market detective stories was far more lucrative. While on holiday in Istanbul he makes the acquaintance of a Turkish police inspector who is an admirer of Lattimer’s work. Lattimer is invited to the policeman’s office where he is provided with ideas for a book the police officer is writing. While there he is invited to join the officer in viewing the body of a master criminal, Dimitrios, who has just been fished out of the Bosporus.

Lattimer, fascinated by sketchy but lurid details of Dimitrios criminal career, decides to trace Dimitrios steps in the hopes that he will obtain new material for future detective stories. Lattimer travels from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, Switzerland and France in search of background information. Of course, anyone seeking such information in the corridors of the criminal underworld immediately becomes the object of attention, some of it quite dangerous. The story of Dimitrios’ life is peeled away like an onion. Bits of information are revealed at each stop. Lattimer discovers that Dimitrios’ actions sometimes had a sinister political connection. As the novel reaches its climax the final bits of information needed to complete the puzzle that is Dimitrios are revealed.

A Coffin For Dimitrios made for an excellent read. Some readers may find it a bit quaint. Some may find Ambler’s prose a bit old-fashioned. But when one considers that Ambler’s books were written about 70 years ago I don’t think it particularly fair to harp overly much on a writing or prose-style that doesn’t quite match that of a le Carrè or Deighton.

A Coffin for Dimitrios and most of the rest of Ambler’s works have been re-issued in new paperback editions by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Press. They are in print and readily available.


[1] Ambler, Eric ( 1909-1998) was a British thriller author credited with producing a harder-edged spy thriller, especially the 1939 A Coffin for Dimitrios.

A Perfect Spy

Title:                      A Perfect Spy

Author:                 John Le Carrè

Le Carrè, John (1986). A Perfect Spy. New York: Knopf

LCCN:    85045587

PR6062.E33 P47 1986

Date Updated:  April 15, 2015

A Perfect Spy is the tale of Magnus Pym, a long-time spy for the United Kingdom. After attending his father’s funeral, Pym mysteriously disappears. His fellow secret agents (not unreasonably) suspect he might have betrayed them — throughout most of his career, Magnus worked for the Czechoslovak secret service. Although intrigue, wit, and suspense compose the novel, the story of Magnus Pym is partly an unadorned recollection of Magnus’ childhood and memories of his father Rick Pym.

For a British view of the book, the following is based on a review by Clare Morrall in The Independent.[1]

Morral says:

When writing a recent novel, I spent time thinking about the concept of identity; the idea that people can fool not just their close associates, but even themselves, and literally become the person they believe they are. It became increasingly clear to me that nobody ever really knows another person. And my mind kept returning to John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, where the world of spies and double-spies becomes a metaphor for the treachery of the human heart, where identity can become lost and confused in a web of hidden corridors.

I first read A Perfect Spy about 20 years ago and to read it again was a real treat. Le Carré’s world leaps out of the pages: the games played in the shadows, where people really are tortured and die; the deals, the double-crosses; the terminology that doesn’t need explaining because he credits the reader with intelligence. It’s an alternative world, a thread of darkness that runs parallel to normal existence. Within this world there are complex emotions, emerging so painfully that they take your breath away.

Magnus Pym is holed up in a boarding house in Devon, knowing his time is limited, writing the story of his life for his son. Rick, his father, a man with enormous presence and energy but no moral integrity, features prominently. Magnus’ childhood alternates between Paradise —a life of luxury accompanied by the Lovelies and Syd Lemon, Rick’s Cockney first lieutenant—and darkness, when the lights go out in the vast nursery, the cook disappears and two police cars park in the drive. After a period of austerity, his dad returns and it starts all over again.

Rick bounces in and out of Magnus’s life, turning up with his court, demanding love, always embarrassing. There’s a glorious chapter when Rick almost gets himself elected as a member of Parliament. Magnus helps with the campaigning, charming old ladies on icy doorsteps, promising to see them all right. Why does Magnus do it? His love for his father is complicated, entangled with hate, and Rick’s death becomes the trigger that leads to Magnus’s final breakdown.

Every character is painted with compassionate detail. You believe in them all: Jack Brotherhood, who loves Magnus because he recruited him, who believes in him until it becomes impossible, a man who could shoot his sick dog with no visible sign of emotion; Axel, alias Poppy, betrayed by Magnus, who comes back, expecting and receiving unbreakable loyalty; Miss Dubber, Magnus’ Devonshire landlady, accepting his care like a substitute mother. I know these people as if they lived next door to me.

The Berlin Wall has gone, but Le Carré’s novels are no less relevant today. He dissects the world of the heart, those innermost paths where none of us like to go for fear of what we’ll find. I’ve heard that Le Carré refuses to allow his books to be entered for literary prizes. It’s probably just as well. He’d win every time.

I have read this book at least 4 times and still I get lost in the story. It may be one of the best spy novels ever, but it is as dense as concrete.

[1] Published in The Independent (Feb 2, 2012). Clare Morrall’s novel, The Roundabout Man, is published by Sceptre.